The Orange Macaroon was a wretched hive of scum and villainy, a veritable stain on the morality of this fine nation, where anyone could acquire any illicit goods or services for the right price. Somewhere between a concrete bunker and a cave, with only one entrance at the end of a long corridor guarded by a hulking guard, all illuminated by a tangerine glow: this was a speakeasy with a reputation even amongst its own kind. And yet, here in a splintered wooden booth by a smouldering fireplace, was where Jacob planned to start his new life as one of the most feared gangsters in Chicago. No longer would people look down on him. No longer would he have to shred his hands every day at the local steel mill. No longer would he have to share a room with his six brothers. He was a grown man; he deserved his own damn bedroom. No, society had failed him, so crime was the only answer. There was only one group with the reputation, and funds, to get to where he wanted to be.
The Merry Cardinals. The single most notorious and bloodthirsty criminal gang this side of the Rocky Mountains. They’d started as a loose group of priests and clergymen who, upon the enactment of abolition, began a roaring side-hustle selling bottles of communion wine for hundreds of dollars a bottle in an effort to finally fund the repair of the church roof. After a couple of months, they realised that the whole business of worshipping Jesus had fallen by the wayside somewhat, and so became full-time gangsters, stripping their churches for anything that could be sold, and using the proceeds to smuggle crates of alcohol across every conceivable border. It was rumoured that the founding members even had their own vineyards hidden away in the forests of Virginia, and that every Sunday they would take it in turns to give an overview of their side of the business in the form of a sermon to all the senior gang members. They had it all, and were the best chance a layabout like Jacob had of getting out of the rut his life seemed to have naturally drifted into.
After months of asking around, he’d finally received the note, anonymously stashed in his work overalls that morning, telling him when and where he was to meet them. And these were not the sort of people that you could let down, unless you happened to be the sort of person who enjoyed having an uncommon amount of lead pumped into you next time you visited the post office. To be on the safe side, Jacob had arrived two hours early, which may have been for the best; the place was absolutely heaving with bodies. All the booths and barstools were full, and a drunken crowd thronged in the centre of the room, laughing uproariously every time one of their number slipped on the sodden floor.
Jacob checked his watch. Half an hour to go. He’d contented himself with water up to this point to keep a clear head, earning him occasional seething glares from the scarred bartender. Now his heart was hammering in his chest, and he went over his pitch for the sixth time that evening.
Fifteen minutes later, whilst he was reciting his pitch for the eighth time, the heavy wooden door opened, and a tall man in a long grey coat walked in. Clean-shaven, the close-cropped hair around his ears showed signs of premature greyness, the rest hidden by an impeccably-tailored black fedora.
Jacob continued to observe the visitor. It was still a bit early, but the man was well-dressed and spoke confidently to the bartender, before turning around to observe the room. His eyes met Jacob’s, and the two men stared at each other for a moment. The man in the fedora then gave a slight nod, and strolled over to the booth, casually stepping over an unresponsive patron spreadeagled on the floor as he did so.
The man in the fedora sat down across from Jacob. The two men observed each other in silence. The moment seemed to stretch on. Still, neither talked. Jacob could feel the sweat beading on his forehead. Who was supposed to talk first? Was this even the right guy? He stared at the impassive features of the man opposite, giving him no clues whatsoever. The silence dragged on. Finally, Jacob winced and took the plunge.
‘Are you…the one who is supposed to meet me here?’
The man in the fedora continued to gaze blankly at him. After a moment, he extended a hand. ‘Lundy’s the name.’
Jacob waited for him to continue, but no follow-up came. ‘Is that your first name, or…?’ Lundy shrugged. ‘Does it matter?’
Jacob hesitated. ‘I…guess not.’ Lundy looked at him, expectantly. ‘Oh, and I’m Jacob. I guess they didn’t tell you.’
‘Clearly not.’ The bartender came over, and put a glass with an unusually wide brim down in front of Lundy. It was full of a clear liquid, with delicate bubbles occasionally rising to the top. Lundy nodded in appreciation, and took a long sip. ‘Ahh. Perfect.’
Jacob attempted to prove his credentials at a connoisseur off the illicit beverages. ‘Is that vodka?’
Lundy scowled in disgust. ‘Vodka? That vile potato juice can stay in Russia where it belongs.’ He gestured to his glass. ‘This is a gin and tonic. Broker’s London Dry. Got a taste for the stuff when I was doing some overseas work there, and I’ve never looked back. The barman keeps a bottle behind the bar for me specifically.’ He looked at Jacob. ‘But I guess you didn’t come here to talk about my choice of drink. What can I do for you?’
Jacob took a deep breath. This was it. ‘I would like…I mean, I want, I…I think I deserve to join the business. You see, I have a plan.’
‘And what business would that be?’
Jacob peered at him, confused. ‘The…bootlegging? For the Merry Cardinals?’ Before he could clarify further, Lundy grabbed him by the collar and drew him across the table, pressing his face into the knotted wood.
‘What in god’s name do you think you’re doing?!’ he snarled. ‘You can’t use those terms in public! You want to speak about illegal activity in the middle of a crowded room? Where do you think you are?’
Jacob gurgled incomprehensible something into the table, and Lundy raised him up by an inch. ‘Well?’
‘In a speakeasy?’
‘Oh, right, yeah.’ Lundy suddenly let go of Jacob’s lapels, causing him to headbutt the table once again. ‘Fair point. But still, be careful.’ He rapped his knuckle against the side of the booth. ‘The walls have ears.’
As he slid back into his seat, Jacob began to have second thoughts about this whole enterprise. Before he could re-evaluate, Lundy resumed his line of questioning.
‘So. Your plan.’
Jacob attempted to recomposed himself. ‘Yes. The plan. My plan. Are you ready?’ ‘Get on with it.’
If Jacob was hoping that Lundy’s expression would change from stony disinterest, he was sorely mistaken. However, it may just have been a trick of the light, but he thought he’d detected an almost imperceptible flicker of bewilderment in his eyes. Jacob smiled to himself. He’d got this guy’s attention. His future boss (given time, perhaps employee…no, he was getting ahead of himself) gazed intently back at him, his pale eyes piercing Jacob’s features as though trying to discern what was going on behind them. At last, he blinked, and broke the silence.
‘Nuns?’ He repeated.
Jacob nodded confidently. ‘Nuns.’
Lundy took a quick sip of gin, and then slowly placed it back on the table, as though he was unsure whether it could take the weight of his beverage. Once he was sure his quarry was secure, he looked back at Jacob.
‘I don’t get it.’ He said, bluntly.
Jacob wasn’t surprised. It had taken him time to come to terms with it, as well. ‘I was thinking: the main issue we face isn’t so much getting hold of the alcohol, it’s the distribution. Every cop is naturally suspicious of grown men driving around in their coupes at all hours, and even walking around Chicago looks dodgy if you’re wearing a long coat. But what if we could avoid that? Who are the least suspicious people in the world?’
Lundy thought for a moment. ‘Probably the Dutch.’
‘Nuns!’ exclaimed Jacob, loud enough for a tattooed man at the bar to turn around and stare in bewilderment. He lowered his voice. ‘Sorry. Nuns! You wouldn’t stop and frisk a nun! You’d get struck down by a thunderbolt, or something. And you can fit a surprising amount under their robes.’
‘Maybe rabbits, but also alcohol! I tested it with a mock up I made from my bedsheets; I could fit eight bottles around my waist alone, and it was barely noticeable!’ Jacob’s voice was rising in excitement once again, but he still leaned in closer. ‘Imagine it. Groups of bootleggers, transporting gallons of alcohol from one side of the city to another, protected from being accosted by the very clothes that hide the bottles!’ He stared intently at Lundy. ‘What do you think?’
Lundy’s mouth had slipped open slightly halfway through Jacob’s speech, but he hadn’t said anything; he was probably stunned by the simple genius of the idea. He paused, and then squinted at Jacob.
‘And you don’t think the police will be the least bit suspicious when they wake up one day and the streets are filled with criss-crossing hordes of the Brides of Christ?’ He asked, slowly.
Jacob’s grin somehow widened further. He’d anticipated this question. He’d anticipated every question. ‘Not if we give them reason to be here.’
Lundy carefully scratched his cheek. ‘I…don’t follow.’
‘We build them a monastery.’
‘Do you mean a convent?’
‘What’s the difference?’
A monastery is for monks.’
‘Then yes, I do mean a convent. Tomato, tomato.’
Lundy shook his head. ‘You want to build a convent, here, in Chicago, the beating heart of the Empire of Sin for every gangster, thug, and low-life in America? And fill it with bootlegging nuns?’
Jacob hesitated. ‘Crazy brilliant?’
‘No. Just crazy.’
‘But…why?’ Jacob tried, and failed to keep the note of desperation out of his voice. ‘It’s foolproof! Women are naturally less suspicious then men as it is…’
‘Not really,’ interrupted Lundy, as he gently swirled his drink around in its glass. ‘Bootlegging is pretty much an equal-opportunities employer. The jail cells are filled with enough low-lives of all race and genders for any detective to know that it’s not just a white man’s game.’ He took a quick sip of his drink, and then looked back at Jacob. ‘And this nonsense about building a convent…’
Jacob took this opportunity to complete his pitch. ‘The convent can double as a storage depot and base of operations, and would be immune from outside intrusion. Who in the hell raids a convent?’
‘Apart from the Vikings?’
‘Yeah, apart from them.’
Jacob paused. ‘Is he with the Chicago Police?’
Lundy waved his hand dismissively. ‘It doesn’t matter. Look, kid, I get your idea. And by that I mean I understand the basic principles of your proposal even if they are, and I mean this in all honesty, completely ridiculous.’
Jacob’s grin froze on his face. He sat there, stunned. He then heard a tremulous voice. ‘What do you mean?’ Jacob realised the voice was his.
Lundy looked at him, not unkindly. ‘I mean…imagine, that out of nowhere, a mysterious benefactor funds the construction of a large convent in the middle of Chicago’s East Side. Immediately after it’s completed, a few dozen nuns move in, but instead of staying secluded in ecclesiastical penance, they’re out wandering the streets accompanied by weird clanking noises each time they take a step. I hate to say it, but I think someone might smell a rat sooner or later.’ Jacob stared at him, his eyes moistening. Lundy ploughed on, oblivious. ‘Look, it’s on-brand at least. I’m sure the Merry Cardinals
would appreciate the flair. But it is a stupid-ass idea.’ He leaned across the table. ‘Do you know what really drives criminal industry?’
Jacob couldn’t meet his gaze, instead choosing to fixate on the table. ‘I don’t think I do, no,’ he admitted quietly.
‘Relationships. Not romantic relationships, although they do occur more often that you’d think. No, the entire criminal scene in Chicago is run by how much one gangster hates his competitor’s guts, or whether a bootlegger owes a debt of gratitude to his opponent’s mistress because she once rescued
his cat from drowning. It’s one big network, where all the pieces are interconnected. The only way to understand a gang like the Merry Cardinals is to know their reasoning for only ever driving Chryslers, or why they only hire from Chicago’s East Side, or why they never raid their competitor’s warehouses on the sabbath. It’s the result of years of broken promises, betrayals, and countless misspent summers in Jesuit Schools. That is how these operations are ultimately run. Just a bunch of angry, vengeful humans balancing business with personal agendas. And that is also why building a convent in the middle of Jackson Park, apart from drawing the attention of every cop in the city, is a terrible idea. Because I guarantee there is not one gangster in the country that has ‘ordain a fake mother superior’ anywhere on their list of priorities.’ He raised his glass to Jacob. ‘To the idiosyncrasies of humanity,’ he toasted, and downed the remainder of his drink.
Jacob was about to answer, when a shadow fell across the table. He looked over to see a slim man in an identical coat and hat to Lundy standing over them. The man ignored Jacob and spoke to Lundy in a hushed voice.
‘Sorry to bother you, detective, but we need you back at the station. One of the Adams Crew has attempted to bust himself out; we’ve managed to trap him in the staff toilet, but we need some help subduing him again.’
Lundy grimaced. ‘Damn. Alright, just let me finish up here quickly.’ He looked over to Jacob, who was sitting in stunned silence, and smiled apologetically. ‘Well, I suppose the cat’s out of the bag now.’
Jacob’s mouth opened and closed, making no sound, trying to process this new information. Finally, he managed to splutter out a sentence.
The slim man looked quizzically at Lundy. ‘Am I interrupting something?’
Lundy shook his head. ‘No, I was just finishing up anyway. This guy clearly knows nothing of any use. Thanks, Peters, I’ll meet you outside.’
Peters nodded, and walked away. Lundy looked back at Jacob, whose face was now the colour of chalk. After a moment, his eyes met Lundy’s once again.
‘I suppose you’ll be arresting me, now?’ He asked flatly.
Lundy nodded sympathetically.
‘I’m afraid conspiracy to commit a crime is in itself a crime, so, yes, I am going to have to arrest you.’ He drew a pair of shiny metal handcuffs from his coat pocket. ‘Would you mind?’ He asked, motioning with his wrist for Jacob to turn around.
Jacob took one last look at the smouldering embers in the fireplace, and sighed.
‘Alright.’ He got to his feet, and turned to face the wall.
Lundy slipped the handcuffs on. ‘Much obliged. For both your cooperation, and a thoroughly entertaining evening.’
Lundy nodded in acknowledgement as he put on his hat and began walking Jacob to the door. ‘I must admit, the idea that any random halfwit could rise to control a vast criminal empire is a novel one.’
‘When you say “halfwit”…?
Lundy opened the door and began climbing the stairs. ‘Very novel indeed. I spend most of my days at crime scenes, trying to piece together clues from various shootouts and assassinations. And then once I have a suspect, I have to track them down, which inevitably ends in yet another shootout…it really keeps a guy busy, you know? So it’s a real change of pace to deal with an inept underling with absolutely no idea what he’s doing.’
Jacob nodded, unable to disagree. ‘So, this is the quiet part of your shift? Do you stake out The Orange Macaroon every Thursday to catch guys like me?’
Lundy shook his head. ‘Lord, no. I finished work at five today. Figured I needed a break.’ Jacob halted on the spot. ‘Wait. Then…what were you doing there tonight?!’
Lundy looked down at him, impassive. ‘I fancied a drink. It’s thirsty work being a detective in Chicago.’
Jacob stared at the detective, stunned. ‘You…weren’t there for me?’ He whispered, disbelievingly. ‘Nope. Although, if anyone asks me, I’ll tell them I was, so I don’t get arrested myself.’ ‘But…you came and sat with me!’
‘Every other table was full. My choice was between having to converse with a timid stranger, or asking a shifty-looking bloke with biceps the size of Wrigley Field to scooch up on his barstool.’
Jacob said nothing as the two men walked down the corridor, through the heavy iron door, and up the stairs. The sun had set, and the street was bathed in artificial neon colours. The faint murmur of music penetrated from below the cracks in doors, a mixture of jazz, blues, and ragtime that duelled in the crisp evening air.
He took a deep breath of the outside air, fully aware that these were now a limited commodity in his own near future. A different thought then occurred to him.
The man didn’t bother to look at him. ‘Yes?’
‘Will I get my own cell?’
Lundy shrugged. ‘We’re going to have to move the escaped Adams Gang member to maximum security, so there should be one free, yeah. Why?’
Jacob nodded to himself. ‘No reason.’
At least tonight wasn’t a complete failure.